Trying to emerge from the worst recession since the Great Depression, Florida appears trapped in an agonizing pattern of first-in, last-out.
While most states added jobs last month, Florida lost another 4,000. Nationwide, consumer spending has risen for five months, credit card delinquencies have improved, exports are increasing, and corporate profits are up. Yet in Florida, where the housing downturn led the state into the recession early, rising foreclosures are postponing any recovery party.
The bottom line number out Friday: Florida's unemployment rate inched up to 12.3 percent in March, the highest level since the state began tracking jobless figures in 1970. That not only tops the record of 12.2 percent set just a month earlier but further widens the gap with a national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.
The loss of 4,000 jobs comes after the state added 26,300 jobs in February, which was its first gain in more than two years. "This is expected when you're in the trough of a recession. You'll have some ups and downs," said Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.
The pace of job losses in recent months has slowed dramatically, raising hopes that Florida's unemployment will peak soon.
"At the national level, things really do look like they've turned," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. "The best you can say about Florida is it's becoming much less weak. … We're sort of on the cusp of turning the corner."
Steve Cochrane, managing director at Moody's Economy.com, thinks that corner in Florida is at least six months away and "probably a little longer."
For most of the past two years, health care has been the only sector in Florida adding jobs. Some of the other industries starting to hire now, in particular technology, have a relatively small presence in Florida. Cochrane cited that as one more reason the state will lag in recovery.
"The odds are the unemployment rate will rise a little bit more before it falls," he added. "Does it get to 13 (percent)? Maybe it does."
Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, wrote in an e-mail update Friday that it's "pretty clear … that Florida's recovery will trail the balance of the nation." He cited three obstacles in particular: a weaker housing market, stagnant population growth and heavy reliance on non-wage income.
There was some positive news on Florida's job front, however.
For one, the Conference Board said the number of Florida job postings online rose to 232,200 last month, up 10.4 percent from February. That was the largest month-to-month increase among the 10 most populous states.
For another, 65 of Florida's 67 counties enjoyed a drop in their jobless rate in March. In the Tampa Bay area, the unemployment rate fell to 12.7 percent in March compared to a revised 13.2 percent in February. Every county in the Tampa Bay region posted a drop in unemployment.
Flagler County remains the Florida county with the highest unemployment rate, though it fell from 17 percent to 16.6 percent. Hernando County at 15.1 percent is second highest. Liberty, where the primary employer is a prison, continues to post the state's lowest jobless rate: 7.3 percent, down from 7.5 percent.
"Florida's job market continues to show signs of improvement with job losses moderating and new job listings increasing," said Cynthia Lorenzo, director of the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.
Still, Rust, the AWI economist, cautioned against reading too much into local numbers. A half-percentage point change in a given county is too small to draw conclusions on where the job market is headed, she said. Unlike state data, county and metro area statistics are not seasonally adjusted, which makes them less reliable.
County and local statistics also were bolstered by short-term and stimulus-funded hiring.
The Council of Economic Advisers on Friday released a new analysis that credits the federal stimulus plan for adding or keeping 153,000 jobs in Florida in the first quarter of 2010. Separately, another 3,300 people were hired in Florida in short-term jobs to help with the U.S. census.
In part because of expiring short-term jobs and partly because of discouraged workers re-entering the workforce, Florida's unemployment rate isn't expected to peak until later this year. A group of state economists earlier predicted a peak of 12.3 percent in the second half of 2010.
Rust said that peak is still possible. Her biggest concern is a growing glut of foreclosed homes keeping housing prices down and restraining new construction. Florida has the fourth-highest foreclosure rate in the country, with one out of every 149 units in the foreclosure process.
The timing for a turnaround will be largely influenced by whether the nascent recovery being felt in other parts of the country takes hold.
Cochrane points out that Florida's economy is heavily dependent on out-of-staters — from business and leisure travelers to investors, retirees and transplants buying houses here.
"Florida really needs the rest of the country to do better, in a sense, before it does better," he said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8242.